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DWeb Camp 2023: Coalition-Building Across the Tech Stack
Reflections, lingering questions, and frameworks for thinking about projects and partnerships in the decentralized web community
I first learned about DWeb Camp last year from my job at Metagov, but unfortunately couldn’t attend due to prior commitments. As a lifelong camper, I loved the sound of a bunch of tech nerds nerding out among the Redwoods for a few days. So, this year I made it a top priority, and I’m so glad I did.
I arrived in San Francisco in mid-June eager, excited, and nervous to spend a week in the forest with a bunch of total strangers (and a handful of friends). But listening to the founding story of DWeb Camp during the welcome speech by Event Producer Wendy Hanamura, I could sense that I had found my people.
DWeb Camp was founded on the idea that we need a “third path” for technology that exists somewhere in-between the venture-backed startup “move fast and break things” model and the too-slow and too-bureaucratic academic research-paper-based model. This middle path could take the best elements of the other two: be a path for conscious tech development, building tools for a better world, and getting those tools into the hands of the people and communities who need it most—stat.
And so since 2015, Wendy and Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, have been assembling a community of folks trailblazing this third path. However, instead of a formal commercial venue and stuffy business attire, they decided nature would be a better, more aligned setting for the gathering—“a tech conference meets Burning Man”—and I think they were right.
Camping will surely humble even the most professionally-oriented of us. Among the Redwoods, we were able to shed our hard exterior layers and become soft, vulnerable, and honest, which made it easy to form deep and meaningful connections. People were able express themselves as multi-layered people—beyond just representatives of their “projects”—exploring intersections between my favorite things: technology, mindfulness, art, and activism.
As a community builder, organizer, and activist (and Aquarius!), I don’t use the “c” word lightly. While DWeb Camp is not perfect, I do believe that when it comes to communities, it passes my litmus test: shared values, trust built over time, care and reciprocity flowing easily and naturally, people actually showing up to do stuff together, community growth and resilience through conflict—just to name a few things.
I have been a dedicated researcher within the “responsible technology” movement for a few years now, but I have never felt so invested in a group of people and projects before DWeb Camp. So, I wanted to write this piece with two main goals in mind:
lay out what makes the DWeb Camp community so special
share some (hopefully) helpful frameworks for establishing and growing partnerships within the community.
I believe that if anyone’s got a shot at fixing what’s broken about the internet (and our future), its this community. So, let’s give it our best shot.
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What does “decentralization” mean in the DWeb Camp community?
One thing I found extremely unique and valuable about DWeb Camp was that the event brought together people working on decentralization at multiple—if not every—layer of technology or the tech “stack.” If you haven’t heard that term before, basically a “tech stack” is a set of technologies that are stacked together to build any application. Or, another definition, is the combination of tools, applications, and services used to build a web or mobile app. Here are a couple different example “tech stack” diagrams:
When I say “decentralization at every layer of the tech stack” I mean that I learned about a wide range of types of projects including: community wifi networks, blockchains and other peer-2-peer networks, decentralized data storage systems, collaboratively designed application interfaces, and more. Inspired by all these projects and for the purposes of this piece, I thought I’d take a shot at making my own “tech stack” diagram… (simplified a bit towards the bottom with a couple added layers at the top).
Coming out of DWeb Camp, my broad understanding of decentralization is a process where power is shifted away from a centralized source to more people and entities. Power can include ownership, decision-making power, and access to capital at each and every layer of the stack.
Some of the major benefits of decentralization at these different layers include:
resilient social and technical networks that cannot be censored, surveilled, or shut down completely by overtaking control of any single node
accessible and regenerative wealth-sharing systems rather than exploitation for Big Tech profit
diverse, pluralistic values embedded into technology including artificial intelligence
The DWeb Camp community believes decentralization is needed now more than ever to push back against centralized and concentrated power—whether held by oppressive, authoritarian regimes or Big Tech monopolies.
Something else really cool about DWeb Camp was that I got to meet some of the developers of the earliest internet—or the “old guard” as they referred to themselves.This made DWeb Camp not only a space for interdisciplinary exploration and learning but also intergenerational knowledge-sharing. They made it clear that decentralization was always and should remain a core value of the internet. They expressed that while their original goals of democratizing access to information and facilitating connection between people all around the world were met in some regards, they have become concerned by all the centralized sources of power, control, and wealth accumulation that dominate the internet we have today.
These types of conversations made me realize that not only is DWeb Camp a community, but it is also part of a larger social, political, and economic movement that precedes all of us working in it today with lessons to learn and leaders willing to guide us.
Framework for Designing Collaborations across the Stack in the DWeb Community
One of my favorite sessions from DWeb Camp was hosted by the digital rights advocacy non-profit Fight for the Future alongside various U.S.-based abortion and gender affirming care funds as part of the Bodily Autonomy track. The session was focused on coalition-building and left me thinking a lot about how folks working at different layers of the tech stack might continue to support each other. This awesome piece by Lia Holland in Shareable gives a great overview of DWeb Camp and the conversations from that same session.
In that session, we surfaced a framework for identifying DWeb Camp participants between what we called the “what” people (technology builders) and “why” people (activists/front-line community technology users). A question we raised is: how can “what” people and “why” people continue to support each other and work together?
Another way I have been thinking about answering this question uses my tech stack diagram to re-frame and ask: how does decentralization at the deeper layers support decentralization at the upper layers?… and vice versa?
Collecting and documenting the stories of how decentralized technologies support activist and community organizations is crucial to movement-building because they serve as a model—both for other communities who might face similar challenges and other technology teams working on tools to help people. Lia’s piece highlights a few great examples:
“At DWeb Camp we heard about a Discord alternative with the privacy of Signal; a technology that breaks the monetary link between an abortion fund and an abortion patient; as well as uncensorable ways to share information on gender-affirming healthcare, as state attorney generals seek to ban it from the internet.”
But something that still makes me nervous—because it’s an area where I believe we still have a long way to go—is in figuring out the best ways to hold decentralized technologies accountable to the communities they serve.
It is becoming apparent that decentralization at the lower, tech infrastructure layers without decentralization at the upper, social layers tends to reinforce existing power distributions in society—where small groups (usually cis-het white men) with ownership and control of the infrastructure maintain and expand their wealth and power. We see this happening with the blockchain industry where many of the large players (chains, exchanges, DAOs, etc.) basically resemble corporations at the higher layers of the stack even though they’re built atop decentralized technological infrastructure.
In her piece, Lia alludes to this issue when she says that the “why” people care less about how the technology works so long as they can trust the people “working under the hood.” But, speaking as an activist and artist, trusting the technology industry is not easy when you look around at how tech companies have treated marginalized communities up until now: enabling surveillance and harassment, facilitating the spread of hate, censoring marginalized voices, enabling plagiarism, and more.
As you now know, I really do have hope in the future of the DWeb… and because of that my research focus these days is on figuring out what kinds of socio-technical (combination of social and technical) governance systems actually work to hold decentralized technologies accountable to the communities they serve?
The answer, I believe, is already unfolding in the partnerships being developed by folks at DWeb Camp 2023. I think the key to sustaining these partnerships and projects will be building systems that enable “why” people to be owners and decision-makers over the “what” stuff (when they want to and in ways that are appropriate).
In a world where the “what” people tend to be those with more power and privilege, they need to ensure they are truly decentralizing internally—transferring their power and control over to the “why” people. This can include things like the Design Justice practice of building “with not for” marginalized communities, creating and testing inclusive decision-making & accountability mechanisms, and “growing at the speed of trust”.If everyone in the DWeb community truly does share the goal of decentralizing power in society, we should be able to navigate these difficult questions and find good solutions together over the coming years.
In hopes of contributing to efforts in collecting and analyzing stories and case studies from the community, I took a stab at using my tech stack diagram to map a specific DWeb project I admire—Mapeo by Digital Democracy. I wanted to see if the tool could be used to help me better understand and articulate how decentralization works at each level of a given project and connect that to the outcomes facilitated by the decentralization:
I would love any feedback on this template! Or if you’d like to help me map more projects, please hit me up. I am very open to collaborating on this ongoing research. *This template doesn’t currently exist anywhere else but is definitely inspired by my recent work on the (soon-to-be-launching) Future of Governance Toolkit by the reState Foundation as well as work with Metagov (esp. Govbase), as well as my years building technology for bottoms-up data classification and moderation, Reliabl.ai, which is implemented on Lips.social, our sexy, queer Instagram alternative.*
My hope is that this framework might help people:
break down complex projects into bite size and more easily understandable pieces
identify points of decentralization (and centralization) in a given project
locate a projects strengths and also its potential gaps and aspirations
track the outcomes of the project as facilitated by the different layers of decentralization
facilitate the design of partnerships between folks working at different layers of the stack
Once individual projects are mapped and potential partnerships are identified, a new, combined map might also be useful for seeing how and where the projects fit together. Another framework I love and highly recommend for designing complex community-centered technology projects is this step-by-step guide by Social.coop, a group of folks cooperatively managing a Mastodon instance. In brief, it starts by establishing shared goals, collectively designing the structures and processes for ownership and decision-making, and adopting (or building) the necessary supporting technology.
I recognize that partnerships are challenging—even among people with shared goals—but I encourage folks collaborating within the DWeb community to have humility and give each other honest feedback. Let’s truly do our best to support each other.
Anticipating Challenges in DWeb Partnerships
Fear of ceding power
Egos getting in the way
Not all of our projects will work, will last, will succeed, will find users. Some will crumble… that’s okay.
Scarcity of resources
As resources shift around in the DWeb community space (i.e. rise and fall of crypto markets, impacts of legislation decisions on marginalized community needs), how can we best support each other? Can we apply for grants together with folks working at a different layer of the stack?
One idea I had that came out of the Fight For the Future coalition-building session was to set up a group chat for grant managers across the DWeb ecosystem where they can communicate about opportunities, connections, and facilitate these cross-stack collaborations. If anyone wants to take this up, I’d be happy to help :)
Money and the role of business in DWeb
Decide together where funding should come from…
Some of the popular sources of funding for DWeb projects I learned about include: crowdfunding (i.e. Wefunder, Open Collective), co-op style membership dues, grants (philanthropic, research-based programs, governments), investment (angel investors w/ capped returns, venture studio model (i.e. DecentDAO)). Lmk if you’ve got more to add :) Many folks I spoke to at DWeb Camp are trying out new business models—it was truly the most open and honest group of technologists I’ve ever been around. Let’s continue to be that way, sharing resources and learnings and refusing to adopt the same exploitative and hierarchical models of corporations.
As well as what it should be used for…
Something else I realized that folks working across the DWeb stack have in common is that we all suffer from the fact that our society does not value care labor. Whether it’s front-line community organizers, online community moderators, or open source code maintainers, we are all doing reproductive labor necessary to keep our society running. By valuing and compensating for reproductive labor in our movement, we can change that - super inspired by DisCO.coop here.
We should have a community conflict resolution process for DWeb. I welcome more thoughts on this <3
Moving forward for me
First and foremost for me, I can’t wait to keep growing the friendships I made at DWeb Camp. I feel energized and inspired to do more writing and case study collecting, as well as continuing to work on my own DWeb projects (Metagov, Reliabl, and Lips).
I also look forward to making more art! As one of my DWeb inspirations and now friends Speaker John Ash reminded me, even though the core of what we’re doing is building technology, we also need to be cultivating our creativity and making art in order to tell our stories and reach people through a wide range of mediums. Plus art is fun. So, most importantly, I will be enjoying this ride of a lifetime… and staying hydrated :)
That’s all. Thanks for reading this <3
Lots of love,
PS: If you want to get involved in the DWeb community, message me! I can connect you with the right people. I’ll be attending meet-ups in NYC so if you’re here and interested in joining me, also message me :) xx
PPS: Special thanks to Humphrey Obuobi, Danny Spitzberg, and Cent Hosten for your feedback on the framework & writing presented here. Plus, many more thanks to a whole bunch of other incredible people I met at DWeb Camp for inspiring and informing this piece & more to come💜
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For further reading, here are a few links to high level overviews of key topics related to the decentralized web: “Decentralization, Open-Source, and the Blockchain Operating System” (Near Wiki); “Is a Decentralized Internet on the Horizon?” (Builtin.com); “What a Decentralized Infrastructure Is and How It Actually Works” (Forbes).
If you’re interested in more of my research on these issues, particularly related to sex workers and the LGBTQIA+ community, I suggest you browse my previous newsletter posts especially the ones on feminist social media, Instagram censorship, thoughts on OnlyFans, reporting on the EARN IT Act, and more.
I forget where I first heard this idiom, but I love it and use it all the time—the idea being that technology should “grow at the speed of trust” of the community it serves rather than growing as fast as possible.